Author: Eugene Thacker
Publisher: Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2004
Review Published: May 2006
The biological and digital domains, declares Eugene Thacker in the opening pages of Biomedia, "are no longer rendered ontologically distinct, but instead are seen to inhere in each other" (7). Codes of the software and DNA variety inform our lives, even as barcodes and legal codes govern them. Thacker's focus throughout Biomedia is contemporary techno-culture's attempt to "decode" the biological body. Biotechnology treats the body itself as a medium, while seeking to redesign it using its "own" material components and biological organization. Adapting Bolter and Grusin's (1999) concept of "remediation," Thacker, who teaches new media at Georgia Institute of Technology, defines biomedia as "the technical recontextualization of biological components and processes" (11). That is, biological and medical approaches to the body are increasingly situated with the domains and critical thinking in computing and electrical engineering. The body is both a biological entity and a set of "programmes" made visible through computer-aided visualization, modeling, and simulation.
Having defined the field, Thacker proceeds to provide a short account of the new technologies of bioinformatics, with its attendant processes of encoding, recoding, and decoding, which renders the body into data. Thacker's account of the discipline of bioinformatics focuses on the most crucial component of the area: the link between DNA, software codes, and the biological body. Traversing the spectrum of bioinformatics projects such as the Human Genome Project and Bioperl, Thacker marks the shift from metaphorization to autonomization. Initially, information served as a metaphor for describing genetic material. Increasingly, however, DNA becomes information itself. Such a shift also creates a discourse where the body (now seen as "data") can be translated between and across media without transformation. This results in four "tensions": that DNA is treated as equivalent to data; that DNA and data are mutually translatable; that data (DNA) accounts for the body; and finally that the body can be generated through data (DNA). Biological data and the corporeal-material body are increasingly interchangeable because one accounts for/generates the other. It is this process of translation that renders biology itself "virtual." ("Virtual," in fact, suggests "potential," thus gesturing at the potential of data to be actualized, expressed, or made real.)
Tools for medicine and pharmaceuticals have become the very source of biological complexity. These microsystems include: "bioMEMS," which hybridize the organic and inorganic domains; "biocomputing," which includes nanotechnology; and "artificial life," which basically attempts to design life out of computers. BioMEMS combine the organic with elements like silicon, and Thacker's interest lies in the ways in which such hybrid substances work across both biological and technological fields. Thacker points out that bioMEMS are a near-perfect example of biomedia for three principal reasons: they integrate themselves into the biological "context" of the body (a "device-environment relationship"); by developing novel hybrids between biological and mechanical components (a "biological-mechanical relationship"); and through the enabling of bioinformatic networks (81-2). In effect, such biomedia asks that we redefine the biological itself, especially when biological features are regulated through electronic codes and data-processing systems.
Reversing the query, Thacker, in "Biocomputing," meditates on whether the genome is a computer. Thacker suggests that biocomputing complicates the boundary between the biological layer (the DNA) and the computational layer. Molecules and atoms -- the "small bodies" of computing and biology -- provide, for Thacker, the rhetoric for nanotechnology. Increasingly smaller devices mean a greater control over atoms and molecules. This, however, is a reductionism where nanotechnology sees everything only in terms of the very small "constituent" elements. The notion of programmable matter (nanotech's ultimate goal) rests on this very assumption. In effect, Thacker concludes after a detailed reading of the rhetoric of nanomedicine that programmable matter is an attempt to implement "a total design environment in relation to the physical world" (139). An extension of this kind of "design" is systems biology. Systems biology generates what Thacker characterizes as the "inhuman" (163), a network of components. Focusing on the relationship between molecules, bio-theorists like Maturana and Varela (also the subject of some detailed study by Katherine Hayles, 1999) in fact seek to balance the nonhuman biomolecular body of systems biology with a human subject-based medical genetics.
Thacker concludes, appropriately, with "The Bioethics of Metadesign," a short chapter on the ethics of biomedia. Distinguishing between philosophical, applied, and cultural bioethics, Thacker argues that there are always two strands within bioethical debates: a philosophical strand and a technical one. Debates about the body, argues Thacker, often mix questions like "what is a body" and "what does a body do?" Opting for a Deleuzean-Spinozan ethics, Thacker marks the differences between a bioethics (which defines the body in traditional medico-genetic, or mechanistic terms) and bio-ethics (where the body is perceived in terms of its effects and relations). He suggests that the latter, far from being opposed to issues of morality, actually asks: "where does ethics occur?" (191). Thacker concludes by proposing that we need to think outside the liberal humanist standpoint while also accounting for the fact that specific notions of the body or the human subject are embedded in legal systems. Simply put, nonhuman "subjects" cannot be part of the legal system because the latter simply does not account for nonhuman forms of individuation.
Thacker's now-routine erudition renders complex ideas into comprehensible "schemes." Moving between technology and its rhetoric, Thacker locates the role of techno-scientific discourse in the creation of subjects and bodies, though he does treat the body itself as a stable, coherent identity without adequate reference to the gendered, classed, and raced nature of any human body. Bodies experience technologies and subject-formations derived from such technologies differently, as Fatimah Jackson's critique of the Human Genome Project (2001) and Thomas Foster's more recent work on cyberculture (2005) have demonstrated. To speak of the human body except in terms of biology is to erase the other axes along which the human subject is constructed and acquires its identity.
One of the attractive features of Biomedia is the precise analysis of the way techno-scientific discourse (from Watson and Crick to Maturana and systems theory) constructs subjects even anterior to research and then proceeds to propose alterations, additions, or new "versions." The structure of Thacker's book -- the technology, followed by analysis of the rhetoric, and finally the problems (especially philosophical and cultural) involved -- contributes to its readability. Biomedia is a useful volume in its scope, perspicacity and, most importantly, for the kinds of questions it poses.
Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.
Foster, Thomas. The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Jackson, Fatimah. "The Human Genome Project and the African American Community: Race, Diversity, and American Science." In Raymond A. Zilinskas and Peter J. Balint (ed) The Human Genome Project and Minority Communities: Ethical, Social, and Political Dilemmas. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001, pp. 35-53.
Pramod K. Nayar:
Pramod K. Nayar teaches in the Department of English at the University of Hyderabad, India. His most recent books are Reading Culture: Theory, Praxis, Politics (Sage 2006) and Virtual Worlds: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cybertechnology (Sage 2004). <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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